How to cope with uncertainty when it is the only certainty during the Covid-19 Pandemic
Updated: May 17, 2020
Uncertainty is a major stressor for our bodies. The craving for certainty is embedded deeply in the primitive components of our brain that also drive us towards other survival instincts, such as food and sex.
While we can never really be completely certain about what might occur in the future, there is a part of our brain, the striatum, that is mathematically calculating our odds in any given situation and it sets off its alarm bells the loudest when these odds are 50/50. The striatum is made up of a group of subcortical structures that play an important role in our decisions, movements and motivations, so it not only anticipates reward but also motivates action.
When your odds are 50/50, your striatum doesn’t know which direction to place your energy in. Does it turn you towards safety or focus on minimising negative consequences? This uncertainty evokes a knee jerk threat response in the limbic system causing you to be hypervigilant and primed for fight or flight releasing a flood of the stress hormone cortisol into your body. The intensity of this response in directly related to how important the subject of your uncertainty is in your life.
If there is a 50/50 chance of thunderstorms tomorrow and you are working from home, it may not concern you at all, but if you were having an outdoor wedding tomorrow, then the impact of the odds moving in one direction or the other, could be huge. Do you cancel the outdoor stage and have the flowers delivered to the less preferred indoor, back up venue? What if it doesn’t rain, will you regret organising the indoor venue when there is just as much chance of dry weather as there is of rain?
Once the odds move more favourably into one direction, the limbic system quietens, and the focus moves from "what direction should I go in?" and toward “what is the best way to action this direction?" When you can’t get away from uncertainty your brain tries to manage the odds by mentally analysing the situation and looking for suggestions of increased odds in one direction or the other. We call this worry and, for some, worry can become a chronic habit can lead to anxiety disorders.
Did you know your brain prefers predictable negative outcomes over uncertain ones?
Researchers from the University College London discovered that people who are not sure whether or not they will receive a mild but painful electric shock experience more stress than those who are 100 percent sure that they will receive the shock.
If the odds of a thunderstorm on the day of your outdoor wedding are 70/30 in favour of heavy rain, you may be incredibly disappointed but are more likely to feel there is an obvious direction for your actions. You can plan how it could feel extra special, despite being in the less preferred venue and maybe even come up with some last-minute options that enhance the venue’s appeal. If it didn’t end up raining on the day, you would still be able to make peace with the indoor ceremony as it was the most logical decision based on the odds.
In the case of a 50/50 percent chance of rain, no amount of worry or over analysing the odds, is going to change them. However, making plans for stepping into either direction, based on what you value (for example reduced stress the night before rather than a possible sunny outdoor wedding), will mean that the 50/50 odds of rain are no longer chiming as loudly any your striatum is now focused on actioning movements forward.
The Covid-19 pandemic had meant that many people are currently living with uncertainty.
Will there be a second wave? Will there be an economic downturn? Will I lose my job? Will I get another job? Will the virus mutate? Will house prices go down? Will my café be able to open next month? Will we all be forced into lockdown again? To stay in a heightened state of uncertainty can lead to an onset or increase in mental health disorders, particularly anxiety and depression.
In order to live with uncertainty there are certain steps you can take:
Focus on what you can control
There are always some elements of uncertainty that you can control. For example, if you have lost your job or are concerned about losing it, work on your C.V. or upskill with an online course, investigate what financial supports are available and what cost cutting options you can make to see you through. If you are worried about getting sick, recognise you can control your social distancing and how often you wash your hands, whether or not you wear a mask and how you can boost your immune system through diet and supplements.
By focusing on what you can control you are more inclined to take positive action than stay stuck in rumination and worry.
Curiosity is a wonderful antidote to uncertainty because inherent in it is the notion that not everything needs to be controlled and there is an unfolding in life that is bigger than we are. Most people can reflect on times in their life where adversity led them to a path more enriching than the one that they had previously been on. Curiosity doesn’t minimise the uncomfortableness, but it can allow you to tolerate it, recognising that it may be transformative in nature and allowing a surrendering to the possibilities it offers.
Exercise diverts your thinking and releases neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA which help calm the limbic system and improves the ability to focus. Remember uncertainty, calculated in the striatum, sets off a reaction in the limbic system that creates hypervigilance. By incorporating exercise into your daily routine, you are calming your limbic system and prepping your brain and your body to be more resilient to the effects of uncertainty.
Exercise also produce endorphins, the brain's natural pain killers, which improves sleep and, in turn, reduces stress.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Both meditation and mindfulness require you to be present and in the moment. When we practice meditation and mindfulness, we reduce the neural connection between our limbic responses and our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex provides a host of executive functioning processes but is particularly important in defining our sense of self, values and where we place our attention. When these functions aren’t ambushed by our limbic systems fear response, we are in a better position to make peace with our situation and choose rational values based, rather than irrational fear based, responses.
Although uncertainty is never comfortable, using practices to increasing your tolerance to it and learning to mitigate its effects, can put you in good stead to manage its presence in the covid-19 pandemic…and life in general because, in those immortal words of John Lennon,
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
so nothing is ever really certain anyway.